Legislators approve U.S. Chamber of Commerce agenda bills — one aimed at ‘flash mobs,’ the other at trespassing protesters

The House sent the governor Wednesday two bills pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – one intended to curb “flash mobs” in Tennessee and the other to expedite prosecution of union activists for criminal trespass on a business property.

Both bills were sponsored in the House by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and both were actively opposed in floor debate by Democrats. Both had previously passed the Senate with little discussion, each winning 29 yes votes.

One of the bills (HB2029) would create the crime of “retail vandalism” in Tennessee, which Holt hopefully deter “flash mob” activities in retail businesses or other business establishments when they involve destructive or disruptive behavior. Flash mobbing involves a group of people – often teenagers – suddenly converging in one place, generally for entertainment or celebration of some event.

Democrats questioned the need for the bill, noting vandalism is already a crime. Holt said the bill is needed because organizers of flash mobs, if they are not actually present at the event, cannot be charged with vandalism under current law.

One Republican, Rep. Vince Dean of Chattanooga, said the bill was so broadly drafted that it may be “overreaching.” He suggested the the pastor of his church could face prosecution for organizing a recent event at a shopping mall if some businessman thought the church members were disruptive because the “inhibited traffic at the mall.”

Holt said he did not believe a judge and jury would convict church members in such a situation. Dean said that was true, but the pastor should not be required to go through the time and expense of a trial.

The bill was approved 63-31.

The other bill (HB2030), Holt said, would “expedite” prosecutions for criminal trespass. As amended, it calls for the Tennessee secretary of state to set up a database providing law enforcement officers with quick assess to information about businesses concerned about union organizers or others trespassing on their property. Businesses wishing to be included would pay a fee and the listing would include exact boundaries of the company’s property so it would be clear when a trespass occurs.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, contended the bill sets up “a pay to play justice system,” wherein businesses with the money to pay the required fee will get preferential treatment in enforcing laws. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said the bill is “very vague” and will likely lead to litigation in court that will “muck up the whole thing.”

One Republican, Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville, joined the Democratic criticism, saying there is “a little bit of a hidden message” in the bill for easing prosecution of union activists or others targeted by a business and recalling a similar bill had been rejected three years ago.

The bill was approved 58-37.